Lakeland grad school teachers write book for young readers
It started about a decade ago over a lunch discussion and notes on a napkin.
This past September, two instructors in Lakeland University’s master of arts in counseling program – education veterans Wendy Falk MAC ’09 and Jen Kennedy – celebrated the publication of “The Adventures of Jeff and Reed.”
This four-story anthology explores the many anxieties, insecurities and thrills tweens experience as they transition from elementary to middle school.
Jeff is a popular athlete who hangs with the cool kids. Reed is a brainy overachiever who is a social outcast. When Jeff and Reed are paired together in a class assignment, it’s the beginning of a friendship journey that will challenge, surprise and reward them in the most unexpected ways.
The stories reflect the real-life experiences of the students that have been served by Falk, currently the lead counselor for the Appleton School District, and Kennedy, social worker at North Greenville Elementary in the Hortonville, Wis., School District.
When they were working with elementary school students, they often used books with their children, especially those with relatable characters. But the number of books that told relatable life stories was limited.
“We weren’t finding books that ended like our children live,” said Kennedy, who’s been teaching for Lakeland’s counseling program for five years. “Most had fairy tale endings and that’s not how life is. It’s not real and that frustrated us.
“We were having lunch one day and all of a sudden Wendy said ‘If we want to use what we do every day, let’s write a book. We know how our kids work.’ We got out a napkin and wrote down topics. We still have that napkin.”
The stories of Jeff, Reed and their peers don’t pull punches, much like life for many of their own students.
Falk, who’s been teaching for Lakeland for a dozen years, had her brother, a school district administrator, read the book.
“He read the first story and said, ‘Are you sure you want to print this? This is traumatizing,’” Falk said. “That’s the whole point. We want people to feel what our kids feel. We wrote in a way to evoke feeling, to elicit empathy and, similarly, we worked with our illustrator so the pictures would tell the story actively. This is all about building empathy.”
Kennedy said one of her school’s reading coaches read the book and had a similar reaction. “This is a little much … do you want to go that far?” Kennedy said. “I was super excited when she said that. I knew what we set out to do and we did it.”
The stories also reflect the approach of these two educators, who initially met in 2011 when Falk, an Oshkosh native, was hired into her first school counseling role at Oshkosh’s Carl Traeger Elementary School and Kennedy, an Omaha, Neb., native, was serving the Oshkosh School District as a school social worker.
The two became fast friends, often tag-teaming situations in their building and attending professional development opportunities together.
“Principals referred to us as the dream team,” Falk said. “It was very flattering. We’ve gotten mistaken as sisters. We’re both pretty loud and outspoken.”
“We both want to get the job done,” Kennedy quickly added. “We’re bottom-line people and we tell it like it is.”
Their anthology, which weaves in themes of courage, overcoming fear, self-respect, perseverance and the value of true friendship, is designed for children in grades 3-7.
They created teaching materials for fellow educators and parents who want to use the book at home. The lessons are linked to state learning standards and follow teaching strategies developed by celebrated education researcher Robert Marzano. The stories and lessons are designed to teach students to be empowered to safely problem solve and self-advocate.
The authors are friends with a mother with boys in second, fourth and sixth grade. The family read the book together. “She said it sparked a lot of conversations,” Kennedy said. “That’s exactly what we wanted.”
Like any first-time author, they’ll never forget publication day this past September. “When I first saw it listed on Amazon, that blew my mind,” Kennedy said. “That was the big holey moly.”
Falk loved seeing her college-age children tell their friends to go on Amazon and type in their mom’s name. “What hit me was when I shared the news on social media and the reactions of family and friends,” Falk said. “We hadn’t talked about this whole lot outside of my immediate family. That’s what made it real for me.”
They’ve started writing a second anthology that chronicles Jeff and Reed and their middle school adventures. They’re also exploring some stand-along books that don’t involve Jeff and Reed that tackle some of other challenges they see with the students they serve.
“We know how hard this work is,” Falk said. “Nobody wants to have the hard conversation, a genuine, real, sincere, tough conversation. It’s about negotiating that path safely. It’s a labor of love to empower people to have courageous conversations safely. And you don’t have to do it alone, which is a message we share with our students every day.”